A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

It’s not too often that I read the introduction, preface, or acknowledgements of a book. Rarer still are the times that I find these introductory materials as finely written and intriguing as the book itself. In fact, the only book in the last few years in which the introductory materials were even remotely interesting was Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Until, that is, I read the Explanatory Note of Freakonomics. It took only the first few paragraphs to hook me. After that, my only concern was that the main part of the book would be a letdown.


As it turns out, I had no need to worry.

Freakonomics is much more entertaining, engaging, illuminating, and provocative than any book about economics has a right to be. Co-written by journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, the book has a terrific blend of narrative development and hard-hitting data. Each chapter focuses on an intriguing societal question or problem and applies economic analysis to it. While chapter titles such as “How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?” and “Where Have All the Criminals Gone?” will no doubt enflame some readers’ emotions, the cool calculations and sound reasoning within each chapter will do much to fan those flames.

In fact, I would bet that a lot of readers, like me, will end up convinced of a number of things despite themselves. Take, for example, the chapter on the dwindling crime rate during the 1990s. Levitt begins by examining the most common explanations—many of which, by the way, came from the same people who all along had been predicting a crime surge during that time. A quick search on the LexisNexis database for articles published between 1991 and 2001 brought up this chart of the “phalanx of hypotheses to explain the drop in crime”:

Crime-Drop Explanation Number of Citations
1. Innovative policing strategies 52
2. Increased reliance on prisons 47
3. Changes in crack and other drug markets 33
4. Aging of the population 32
5. Tougher gun control laws 32
6. Strong economy 28
7. Increased number of police 26
8. All other explanations (increased use of capital punishment, concealed-weapons laws, gun buybacks, and others 34

Levitt then deals with each explanation one by one, providing plenty for both liberal and conservative to chafe at. Going against liberals, he discredits the theories of tougher gun control, concealed-weapons laws, gun buybacks, and the strong economy (a Democrat was in the White House), while demonstrating that increased reliance on prisons had some effect. Going against conservatives, he pokes holes in the theories of increased use of capital punishment, right-to-carry laws, and innovative policing strategies. What did account for the drop then? Well, as I mentioned, increased reliance on prisons contributed (about 10%). Also, changes in crack and other drug markets (15%), though Levitt is quick to point out that “crack was responsible for far more than 15 percent of the crime increase of the 1980s. In other words, the net effect of crack is still being felt in the form of violent crime.”

So, we have accounted for some of the crime drop, but surely there was another factor. Yes, it’s true, but that other factor was never mentioned during the 1990s and the first couple years of the new century. According to Steven Levitt, the single greatest contributing cause of the decline in the crime rate—brace yourself—was the Roe vs. Wade decision, way back in 1973.

Now, that explanation is sure to rankle both liberals and conservatives. Indeed, Levitt received quite a bit of hate mail over this analysis—from conservatives claiming that he was championing what they consider murder (abortion), and from liberals concerned that he was touting some form of eugenics.

But as Levitt carefully constructs his rational case, it’s clear (to me, at least) that he doesn’t have any hidden agenda. In the “crime drop” chapter as well as the others, it seems at times as if he is disappointed with the results of his research, a little disillusioned by the truth that he has uncovered.

The rest of the book is just as full of surprises as the crime drop chapter, albeit perhaps a little less inflammatory. Freakonomics is a fantastic book that is sure to get a lot of people discussing some very important issues. Let’s just hope that there can be true dialogue instead of the polarized shoutfests that all too often dumb down arguments and reduce books to silly soundbites.

Update: Read my follow-up article, More on Freakonomics.

More about FREAKONOMICS and its Authors

A Couple Related Works

As the reviews start pouring in, we’ll see many comparisons between this book and Malcolm Gladwell’s works, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In fact, Gladwell praises Dubner and Levitt’s book, warning readers to “Prepare to be dazzled.” But I think Freakonomics is closer in spirit to Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things in that both cover a broad range of issues while debunking some of our most cherished misconceptions. Still, Freakonomics seems more rigorously argued, especially if you take the time to read the book’s End Notes.

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4 Responses to FREAKONOMICS

  1. Dad says:

    I have a strange feeling that I’ve read your comments (at least the introductory ones) before, or maybe you’ve talked with me about Steven Levitt (or could I be thinking of Lawrence Lessig?). Anyway, it sounds interesting enough to buy and read. Thanks.

  2. Yeah, I’m sure I’ve talked to you about Steven Levitt before, probably soon after I received the advance copy of the book. Strange how this internet world works.
    By the way, I was kind of hoping that more people would leave a comment or two about this review. A little disappointing. I even deliberately left out the part about how Levitt arrived at his Roe v. Wade explanation of the falling crime rate to try to stoke some questions.

  3. Felix says:

    The one thing the publishers have clearly done well is send out this book to any and every blogger out there — normally with predictably gushing results. I was not as impressed, however. Am I really the only person out there who thinks this particular emperor has very few clothes?

  4. Bob says:

    Nice review. I just finished the book and found a two key takeaways: incentives and impact of the social system.
    I’ve heard some people complaining about the length. I still don’t pay by the page.

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